By: Jordan Ferguson
Friends, let me tell you something about your boy you might or might not know: I am what could be generously described as, “husky,” and probably more accurately defined as, “fat.” I’ve been so my entire life, from playground taunts to prom date rejections. When something is a part of your experience for that long, you start to internalize it, it becomes part of your identity (albeit one that the individual has some control over and ability to change). I’m not about to stand here and try and make any argument that being a fat person (especially a straight white male) is anywhere near as grueling as the struggles faced by people of colour, women, gay or trans individuals[i], but it does come with some small level of baggage, judgment, prejudice and depressing trends in representation.
Growing up, the only people who looked like me in television and movies were either gelatinous blobs of evil, their size a neon sign pointing to their unchecked appetites, or rotund buffoons. That hasn’t really changed much in my 30-plus years as a cultural consumer[ii]. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d find some rom-com where the chubby best friend helps the heroine find true love, but god forbid he or she have any interest in love or sex for themselves. Not for you, fatty!
There were, however, two (not dissimilar) art forms I’ve always been passionate about where men and women who shared my body type regularly defied expectations: rap music and professional wrestling. MCs like Heavy D and Chubb Rock could rhyme, dance, and sell themselves as legitimate heartbreakers. Wrestlers like Harley Race, Yokozuna and Mt. Fiji might have worked heel most of their careers, but they were always legitimate contenders instead of sideshow freaks.[iii]
If there was one single performer that perfectly blended the braggadocio of rap with the pageantry of professional wrestling, it was the American Dream Dusty Rhodes, who passed away unexpectedly last week at the age of 69.
My appreciation of Dusty came long after he retired from active competition. Growing up near the American Midwest, I was a WWF fan through and through, so the icons of the NWA and WCW were unknown entities to me. The dancing, polka-dotted version of his character that finally showed up on WWF television in the 80s was enjoyable, but bereft of any of the intensity that made him a credible rival to Ric Flair in the South during the Eighties.
See, when you watch wrestling for a long time, you hear a lot of talk about “charisma.” That intangible it-factor that keeps a viewer from flipping channels when a worker comes on screen, that encourages a fan to spend their dollars to watch them perform live. It can’t be trained in a gym, it can’t be practiced in acting classes. The bingo halls and Elks Lodges of America are filled with men who had the right look, were technically proficient, maybe they could even cut a promo if they had to, but didn’t have that thing that makes people want to watch them, to invest their belief in them. You can’t explain it, but you know who has it when you see it, and you always saw it from Dusty. It exploded out of him with every word he spoke in his signature Texas lisp.
All the things that made Dusty compelling as a wrestler were the very things that should have worked against him: his size, the matted pile of limp blonde curls dead and fried from decades of bleaching, the Huggy Bear caps sagging on the side of his head, it all would have been comical on a lesser performer, but it worked for Dusty because he owned it: “I admit, I don’t look like the athlete of the day’s supposed to look,” he said in his flawless “Hard Times” promo from a feud with Ric Flair in 1985. “My belly’s just a little big, my heinie’s just a little big, but, brother, I am bad and they know I’m bad.” Dusty knew himself, and he was us, the best version of us. The version that loves and embraces the whole of ourselves in spite of our flaws and shortcomings. The version that finds meaning in the often-Sisyphean struggle of just getting through the days as an unremarkable. The version that could believe we deserve to touch greatness. Dusty never doubted it, so maybe we could see it in ourselves.
For all of his brilliance in front of the camera, Dusty also made significant contributions to the business behind the curtain, from his time as a booker for Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW to his work as a member of NXT’s creative team, a job he kept until he passed. His masterful promo skills and understanding of ring psychology and storytelling developed future stars of the industry like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. But nothing in his career, to me, encapsulated his genius as a storyteller with his fully realized sense of himself as a performer, and his relationship to the fans, as what came to be known as “The Dusty Finish.”
The Dusty Finish was one of Rhodes’s favourite booking techniques, a screwjob wherein one wrestler (typically the babyface) scores a victory, only for it to be reversed or tweaked on some sort of technicality. In the incident most fans refer to when using the term, Dusty finally won a pinfall over his nemesis Ric Flair at Starrcade 1985, despite outside interference leaving the match’s referee unconscious. A second referee ran to the ring and made the three-count that awarded Dusty the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. While he popped champagne in the locker room and celebrated, the original referee came to and reversed the match’s decision. He’d seen the interference before being taken out, which meant Flair was actually disqualified. Dusty still won the match, but since the title doesn’t change hands on a DQ, he lost the strap. He’d gone from the highest of highs to lowest of lows in a matter of minutes, and so had the audience.
The Dusty Finish takes a lot of criticism for being lazy booking or some sort of cash grab to try and extend a feud past its sell-by date. It’s a fair criticism, but one that misses the nuance and subtlety of the trick when done by a master.
What it’s really about is failure. One more way in which he was us. We fail. Regularly. Most of us will not be larger-than-life heroes; many of us have difficulty figuring out how to be heroes in our own stories. Whatever tiny victories we might manage to eke out are often fleeting, and can slip from our hands at a moment’s notice, through something we have no control over. When it happens, there’s little recourse but to lace up the boots again and fight for our next shot. Dusty understood the complexity of that condition from his booking down to his name. He wasn’t The American Promise, he was The American Dream, and dreams are not guarantees. For many of us they go unfulfilled as much if not more often as they’re achieved. He said it himself, “I have wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.” Compare that talk to the “limousine ridin, jet flyin, son of a gun,” rhetoric of Ric Flair. The Nature Boy wouldn’t be caught dead eating pork and beans. We celebrate a show like Game of Thrones for thwarting the expectations of its genre, but Dusty was doing that in the wrestling ring 30 years ago.
Professional wrestling will never see another performer like the little plumber’s son from Austin, Texas. His mind for the business, his superhuman ability to connect with the fans in the arena and at home, his gift for a spontaneous catchphrase are all treasure troves of brilliance that will be mined for jewels by future generations of sports entertainers.
His theme during his WWF run proclaimed, “He’s just a common man.” He was anything but.
[i] Once more for emphasis: NOT WHAT I’M SAYING.
[ii] Melissa McCarthy might get top billing on her films these days, but there’s going to be some sight gag where she rolls slowly over the hood after being struck by a car. Rebel Wilson might be the most memorable thing about Pitch Perfect, but the confidence her character is intended to be an avatar for exists to contrast her overall odd and unpleasant behaviour. Oh, and she gets hung upside down from a tree. Hyuk.
[iii] Okay fine, but they weren’t just sideshow freaks.